Wearing a blue striped suit with matching trousers, a lightly starched whiter-than-white shirt and a perfectly double-knotted red tie, Pat walked onto the stage. Spring was the season and spring was in his stride as he shook hands firmly with the master of ceremonies, who unobtrusively exited the stage. The stage was Pat's. The spotlight was on him. 500 pairs of eyes looked at him in unison. What shone brighter than the spotlight was his smile, as he began his speech. It was a 7-minute speech at a Toastmasters Speaking Contest. The topic doesn’t matter, for what stood out was the relaxed air, the calm assurance and the easy demeanor of someone who knew exactly where that line was. That thick line that separates confidence from arrogance. That dark line that places smug haughtiness on one side and disarming honesty on the other. Everything from his unfussy body language, clear organization of his content and perfectly paced manner of delivering his lines was evocative of a conversation with a familiar friend. Predictably, 500 pairs of hands clapped together as he exited the stage. The almost musical applause was a fitting tribute to a perfectly pitched speech.
In her remarkably insightful book Quiet, Susan Cain does a tremendous job of giving due credit to people whose confidence may not be visible at first glance. She sheds light on the steely nerves of those people that are masters of internalization. There could be a flamboyant salesman who may give the vibe that he has the world at his feet. But there could also be a quietly confident software engineer whose lack of demonstrativeness belies an inner foundation that’s as solid as brick. Not that we have to choose between genuine, authentic flamboyance and unassuming assuredness. Both have their rightful place in this world. What we need is the perspicaciousness to distinguish between a rock-solid foundation and a faux veneer that obscures a shaky foundation.
Amidst bombastic, rabble rousing politicians, the leaders that elevate themselves into iconic status are the ones like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. that were laser-focused on their goals, had the invaluable gifts of patience and persistence and above all, displayed honesty and earnestness. Even on a much smaller scale, in my personal and professional lives, I have much admiration for those people whose confidence seems to emerge from within, instead of something that looks forcibly projected. I have wondered if it is sense of purpose that separates the shallow from the deeper waters that different types of people seem to swim in. I don’t have an answer. But I especially respect people of a certain kind - ones who are driven by truth, a genuine interest in the growth of their fellow human beings, be it in the professional or personal setting, and an urge to learn continually, be it skills or self-management. These people seem to possess true inner strength which, in turn, seems to metamorphose into confidence of an enduring, not to mention endearing, kind. Whether or not they are vocally demonstrative is besides the point – after all, expressions of all forms merit existence as long as they are authentic. In fact, the subtitle of Cain’s book is, “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.” So, go figure!
On the other hand, there are a few people that I have encountered at work, personal life and my speaking club that either vocally or tacitly conveyed a lack of confidence in what they are doing. Taking public speaking as an example, it is easy to come across people that shudder at the thought of getting on a stage in front of an audience and giving a speech without stumbling. Not everyone is Pat. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was Pat's felicity. Having been part of my club for the past seven years, I can safely attest to the fact that the demons are within, not in the crowd in front! Sports commentator Harsha Bhogle was at his eloquent best when he wrote, “Make perfect the process of your performance and don't allow the pressure of the results to choke your performance.” By investing energy in the actual act of practicing, one can keep fears at a healthy distance. At least from my own speaking experiences, I have felt the fears and apprehensions vanish…or at least wait outside the auditorium until I am done with a speech! When you choose topics that are close to your heart, the innate passion dwarfs the pressure, at least temporarily. And when you have enough practice by talking about things that truly matter to you, the “process of your performance” gets optimized for even professional presentations that are impersonal to an extent.
I feel fortunate to have been blessed with people in my personal and professional lives that have believed in me. It is a wonderful feeling to be told that you matter, that your work matters, that your existence makes a difference. Of course, this is not to suggest that honest, constructive feedback should not be given due prominence. But to have a deep, abiding sense of purpose can drive people to achieve great heights. I can only hope that in my own life that I can get to pass it forward to those that need the confidence…or even those that would simply appreciate the trust. For some, their self-belief is akin to a home that is financed, designed and constructed by themselves. Others might appreciate a brick here, a brick there, a lending hand that helps cement their structure. Either ways, a sturdy foundation is built, one that can’t be dented by the pernicious storms of fear and self-doubt.